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Women's economic empowerment and enterprise

26 August 2016
By Commonwealth youth correspondent, Mercy Zulu of Zambia

13 July 1848 is an iconic date for women across the world. It was on this date, during a summer afternoon tea in upstate New York, that the women’s rights movement was launched. Since then, great strides have been made to advance women’s education, civic rights and empowerment across the world. Women in entrepreneurship is one such example.

Global statistics indicate that more than 126 million women entrepreneurs were starting or running a new business in 67 economies in 2012, and an estimated 48 million female entrepreneurs and 64 million female established business owners currently employ one or more people in their businesses. According to the GEM 2015 report, the percentage of female entrepreneurs with higher levels of education has increased by 9 per cent.

The story has definitely changed for women across the world, however, in some countries the light at the end of the tunnel shines more brightly than others. There are still large inequality gaps between countries. For instance, the United States led the list by scoring 82.9 per cent on the 2015 Female Entrepreneur Index (FEI) while Pakistan closed the list at a meagre 15.2 per cent.

Despite the overall progress, 61 per cent of the 77 countries included in the report scored below 50 per cent. This demonstrates the need for further work to be done within the scope of women’s economic empowerment across the world, especially in South America, Africa and Asia.

Research shows the following issues need to be addressed in order to increase entrepreneurial activity among women.

The age-old issue of access to capital is a hurdle that women in many regions across the world still face. Barriers such as lack of collateral and discriminatory regulations often prevent them from gaining access to entrepreneurial capital. Entrepreneurship is perceived as a masculine activity. Research indicates that society believes women are less likely to succeed as entrepreneurs than their male counterparts. This perception further hardens women’s access to finance.

Secondly, women in business, especially those in nascent businesses, need support. Mentorship should be provided to women in order to equip them with skills and other relevant attributes to grow their business. This helps dispel perceptions that fewer opportunities for women exist in comparison to men. In Zambia, Kupes Young Women’s Network and Alchemy Women in Leadership are examples of networks that provide young women with support by matching experienced and successful career women with younger women.

Finally, women need entrepreneurial education. They require skills and training to assist them in managing their businesses successfully.

She-entrepreneur is a student-based organisation at the University of Zambia, established to encourage females to create and maintain sustainable business models. While an excellent initiative, an even more profound step would be to introduce entrepreneurial activities at primary and secondary schools to tackle this need at inception.

What is good for women is good for the economy. Women entrepreneurs play a vital role in growing economies. For higher income countries such as the US where the American woman represents the primary or co-breadwinner in nearly two-thirds of families in the country, entrepreneurship contributes to greater incomes. In lower income countries, entrepreneurship is a tool that tackles poverty, and creates and accumulates wealth within the country.

There needs to be greater global collaboration in order to continue to advance women’s economic empowerment. However, the biggest battle lies with addressing social and cultural perceptions especially in regions such as Asia and Africa.

It is essential that women are portrayed for what they are - partners in the pursuit of economic development.

Read more stories on gender from Commonwealth youth correspondents